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April 10th, 2006

CITY ARTS, Making a Difference Through The Arts

by Tara Inberg

Whose mural is it??Ǭ This question is often asked when SoHo residents or visitors walk by the basketball court behind the Grand Hotel on 6th Avenue and Canal Street. Only the curious ones peek in to read the aluminum plaque on the wall to discover that the mural was produced by SoHo-based CITYarts, who invited the Finnish artist Omo Rahula and Chelsea High School to collaborate on creating the Nokia-sponsored mural entitled “Rivers of Communication.”

“CITYarts’ mission calls for collaboration between artists and youth to create public art (murals, sculpture, and mosaic) that addresses social and civic issues,” says Tsipi Ben-Haim, Executive and Artistic Director of CITYarts, and a SoHo resident, married to the artist Zigi Ben-Haim. Therefore we invited the Chelsea High School students to create the mural, as their school is located on 6th Avenue opposite the park.?Ǭ This positive creative activity gave them a chance to contribute something nice and special to SoHo. At times the students are viewed in a bad light in the community. Throughout the creative process with the artist, they were on their best behavior and proved that they can change their image if asked to contribute to their community.” Seven years later, the mural is graffiti-free and other collaborations are planned for the future.?Ǭ CITYarts projects create a sense of community and the places they are located become places to celebrate birthdays and big events.

The idea for the Art mural in the Thompson Street Playground arose in 1996 when parents visiting with their children realized that the playground could use an artistic “facelift.” The artist Jessica Diamond was invited to collaborate with painter Bill Moakler, SoHo teens, and students from the School of Visual Arts, to create the mural sponsored by Jeanne Greenberg Art Advisory. “Kids love this maze,” Ms. Ben-Haim explains, “they look at it and suddenly discover ‘Mommy, it says ART!'”

CITYarts was founded 37 years ago but due to financial difficulties, it had ceased to operate by 1989 when Tsipi Ben-Haim stood up to the challenge to re-open the office and called it CITYarts, Inc. instead of CITYarts Workshop, Inc.?Ǭ Today, 16 years later, CITYarts is thriving with over 260 public projects throughout the five boroughs. Among its multiple awards received, CITYarts was recognized in 1995 by the New York Police Department and Police Commissioner Bratten for outstanding work and making New York streets safer.?Ǭ Some of its other achievements include collaboration with over 100,000 young people and 500 professional artists, channeling kids’ energy into constructive paths, promoting the revitalization of more than 200 communities, and igniting the development of 30 playgrounds, 20 youth programs, 10 commercial businesses, and 15 gardens.

For the past three years, CITYarts has been working on their most ambitious project, Pieces for Peace Mosaic with Youth from Around the World.?Ǭ The CITYarts’ Pieces for Peace website (www.cityarts.org) now displays over 1,000 submissions from Namibia, Fiji, Israel, Germany, India, the United States, and more countries, and is still open to new artwork from teenagers around the world. The traveling exhibition with the original drawings, paintings, and poems began at Flushing Town Hall in Queens and will travel to the Cork Gallery at Lincoln Center in May 2006 and will continue at the Jewish Community Center (334 Amsterdam Ave) during July and August of this year. It includes 251 pieces that artistically and symbolically display the idea of peace and the hope for a better future. Over 1,000 volunteers have already worked on the 213-foot long mosaic located at 138th St and Amsterdam Ave in Jacob H. Schiff Park, in collaboration with the artist Peter Sis and artist fabricators Dakota Warren and R.B. Morris III. The mosaic was inspired by the art work received from the youth around the world. Feedback from the project includes quotes such as:

“I had a terrific time Sunday looking at the mosaic wall.?Ǭ It’s really impressive and must be seen to be believed.?Ǭ You people are really leaving your footprint on the city!” Lucy, Queens, NY, September 2005.

“We have so many people from so many different places working together here and we can get along.” Natali, Israel, June 2005

“I realized that peace involves commitment and cooperation of all races…” Ilaitia, Fiji Islands, June 2005

“…I went to the school, and I met the kids. It was such a refreshing experience. They are so so motivated with the project and they feel very special they are the only school in Chile that is involved with CITYarts. Remember this is a very poor school, so the opportunity they have to be in contact to a project from NYC is very rare …this is a life experience for them; they feel connected to the world with this. They even asked me if there is a possibility to make friends by emails.” Andrea, Chile, July 2005

Every project is site-specific and positively impacts the lives and spaces where they are created,” says Ms. Ben-Haim. “I usually tell the artist, ‘you and your work with the kids will transform their lives forever.’ The response of the artist by the end of the project is, ‘You didn’t tell me they will transform my life forever.'” Just one example of this is the artist Bill Moakler. He created his first mural with CITYarts in the Bronx in collaboration with previously homeless kids. Following the completion of the mural, he went to get his Masters in Art Education and today continues to teach delinquent youth to paint murals as a way of learning teamwork. One of the kids that participated on a CITYarts project with homeless youth 12 years ago wrote recently:

“I work at AFLAC in Columbus, Georgia, I am a pre-medical student.?Ǭ The project brings back many good memories about Longfellow Avenue; it brought us neighborhood kids together stronger than ever.?Ǭ It stopped fights, anger, and created a great sense of communication.?Ǭ We discovered our differences, learned to understand them, and also learned to respect each other’s culture.”

One of the projects closest to New Yorkers’ hearts was CITYarts’ mural “Forever Tall” in the East Village, created with the artists Hope Gangloff and Jason Search as a response to 9/11. CITYarts worked with teens in the downtown area, as well as students from The Manhattan School for Career Development, The Dwight School, and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. A large reproduction of the mural is displayed in Chase Bank at the corner of Broadway and Spring Street.

Ms. Ben-Haim remembers, “Since the mural with the theme of ‘New York as Our Space’ was planned with The Manhattan School for Career Development before 9/11, it included the Twin Towers. After that horrific day, the students asked me, ‘but now, the Twin Towers are gone, so what should we do with them on the mural?’ I told them that in order to celebrate the victims’ lives, we’ll keep them there and cover them with flowers.”

Hope Gangloff let the kids paint their own flowers on the wall over the towers without designing them first in the mock-up. This gave the teens the opportunity to really express their feelings.

As one student said, “Here we were given the opportunity to respond, to do something for the city, so that people can see that we care too.”

Always thinking ahead, Ms. Ben-Haim says, “In the near future, I hope to create a mural tribute to SoHo ‘The Way We Were,’ as a neighborhood with a rich artistic community of artists and galleries that caused a tremendous burst of culture and brought art to the center of society’s daily needs. Many artists and most galleries have gone elsewhere, but we still have a good number of artists here in SoHo such as Alex Katz, Stephen Antonakos, Alice Aycock, Zigi Ben-Haim, Michele Oka Doner, Chris Gianakos, Cindy Sherman, and others, who I hope will come together as advisors to help CITYarts create a beautiful mural monument to artistic SoHo.”

For each project, CITYarts has a call for artists.?Ǭ If you are interested in collaborating with the organization, visit www.cityarts.org to download the artists’ application under “Get Involved.”

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